Oral Cancer: Simple Prevention and Detection Measures Can Save Your Life
By Ron Inge, DDS
The statistics are sobering. According to the American Cancer Society, approximately 54,000 people will get oral cavity or oropharyngeal cancers this year. And, an estimated 10,850 people will die from them. When these cancers are found in early stages, chances significantly improve for greater treatment options and survival. So, it’s crucial to understand the risk factors, symptoms and importance of self-exams, dental checkups and good health habits.
Know the Oral Cancer Risk Factors and Symptoms
Tobacco and heavy alcohol use are two more commonly known risk factors. This includes all forms of chewing tobacco and smoking cigarettes, cigars and pipes. Heavy drinkers have a higher risk than light drinkers.
Age and gender play a role. Those over 45 also have an increased risk, but diagnosis among younger patients is on the rise. Oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers are twice as common in men than in women.
Research has also found a link between oral cancer and Human papillomavirus (HPV), the most common sexually transmitted disease in the United States. The American Cancer Society states that the number of oropharyngeal cancers linked to HPV has risen dramatically over the past few decades. Men are less likely to get screened for HPV, which means the virus might go undetected.
Cancers of the lip are more common for people who spend extended periods outdoors due to extensive exposure to the sun (ultraviolet light). Plus, studies show that a diet low in vegetables and fruits is linked to an increased risk of oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers.
In addition to knowing risk factors, it is important to recognize oral cancer symptoms. These include:
· White or red patches, or sores, in the mouth or on the lips that do not heal;
· Persistent sore throat;
· Difficulty or pain when swallowing;
· Numbness of the mouth or tongue;
· Feeling of thickening in the cheek;
· Lump(s) on the lip, cheek, mouth, neck or throat; and
· Loose teeth.
Take Preventive Action
Fortunately, you can reduce your risk of oral cancer. Do a monthly self-exam. Look and feel inside your mouth and on your lips, jaw and neck for the above symptoms. See your dentist at least twice a year. Because early stages of oral cancer can be painless and hard to identify, regular checkups are vital for early detection and covered by most dental plans. Share your concerns and any health issues with your dentist. He or she may perform a brush biopsy or refer you to a specialist, if needed. Also, be sure to avoid all forms of tobacco, limit alcohol consumption, eat fruits and veggies, protect against UV exposure and consider getting vaccinated for HPV.
It’s Oral Cancer Awareness Month. Staying aware can save your life.
Ron Inge, DDS, is chief dental officer, chief operating officer and vice president of professional services at Delta Dental of Missouri.